Dr Meg Arroll August 23, 2019

There's no doubt that it’s incredibly hard to see your partner, friend or loved one go through a distressing time and feel like there's nothing you can do about it. Although we’re now talking more openly about the menopause, one area that hasn’t yet been given much attention is how men can help during this transition.

What every man needs to know about menopause

Women have all their eggs at birth (usually over a million), but by the time they reach their forties, there are only a few thousand left. When a woman is running out of eggs, the oestrogen signal from her ovaries to her brain becomes weak – this has a cascading effect on other key hormones including progesterone, which combined leads to menopausal symptoms. That’s right, it’s not only mood swings and hot flushes that can wreak havoc as insomnia, memory problems, fatigue, low libido and many other symptoms are part and parcel of the menopause.

Stages of the menopause

The menopause is a gradual transition, so it isn’t like slamming on the hormone brakes – rather, there are three key stages:

Perimenopause:

Although we generally think about the menopause happening in a woman’s early 50s, many women start to experience symptoms during the perimenopause in their mid-40s, which can last 5-10 years. Women may start to notice changes in their menstrual cycle during this time and some of the symptoms mentioned above.1

Menopause:

This is when periods stop altogether, usually around the age of 51. The word menopause comes from the Greek 'men', meaning month, and 'pausis', which simply means 'a pause'. But of course, a woman won’t know this is her last period until some time has passed, which can cause anxiety.

Post-menopause:

This is the one-year mark from a women’s final period. Although life expectancy has improved considerably, the average age of menopause has not changed since records began, which means that women now spend about one-third of their lives post-menopause.

Menopausal symptoms can occur within all the above stages but with appropriate treatment and support, women can get back to a full life and not only survive, but thrive.

Things you can do to help

Be meno-aware

The symptoms associated with the menopause can are often confusing. For instance, some of the first symptoms of the perimenopause aren't the 'classic' hot flushes and night sweats - memory problems, forgetfulness and anxiety can all occur, but because they aren't necessarily associated with the menopause, catastrophic thoughts may run wild. Women often worry that they might have early onset dementia or are 'going mad'. These fears can impact a relationship, so if you notice any differences in behaviour, gently discuss these changes.

But... listen, don't give advice

No one likes to be told what to do, especially when they're awash with symptoms. Do your research about the menopause but avoid saying things like, "I just read XXX tried this and I think it would really help with your mood swings". Instead, ask your partner how she is - then listen. Really listen. Don't let your mind wander into Fix-It Mode, just let her talk, give her a hug and lots of reassurance. This will help to limit angry outbursts as she will feel supported and safe in your company.

Put yourself in her shoes

Try to think about a big change in your life that you had no control over. Maybe you were made redundant, can't seem to get back to your previous level of fitness or control the middle-aged spread. Although you can't know exactly how she feels, it's just much easier to be empathic if you can tap into your own experience of change, which often affects our sense of identity. There will be a time of mourning in which a woman lets go of this part of herself. These emotions can be challenging so support is key here - allow her to express these feelings without minimising the menopause as 'just a natural process'.

Be patient, especially when it comes to the bedroom

The loss of libido isn't not the only symptom that may put your partner off sex - vaginal dryness, thinning and inflammation can make intercourse uncomfortable or downright painful. There are treatments for this, but it can take time for a woman to find something that works for her - so be patient. To maintain intimacy in your relationship, try not to perceive her disinterest in sex as a reflection on you - instead keep the kisses, cuddles and eye contact going with no pressure to jump in the sack.

Boost her confidence

A recent survey by Healthspan found that confidence takes a big knock during the menopause and can lead to anxiety, depression, weight gain, feelings of isolation, problems at work and relationships difficulties. To give the woman in your life a confidence boost, remind her how you feel about her, the qualities you admire and suggest doing something fun: a bit of kidulting never goes amiss.

Don't bottle up your own feelings

Finally, do seek out some support yourself if you're finding it hard to cope with the impact of the menopause on your relationship. If you have friends of the same age, chances are they will also be experiencing similar issues. But if you don't feel you can open up to other men, your GP, a counsellor or local support or online group can help you to work through your own feelings, which will give you the headspace to further help your female friend or partner.

For more advice on the stages of menopause, see our Menopause Advice hub which takes you through symptoms, well being, medication and how you can help.


References
1Harlow, S. D., et al (2012). Executive summary of the Stages of Reproductive Aging Workshop + 10: addressing the unfinished agenda of staging reproductive aging, J Clin Endocrinol Metab 97(4), 1159-1168. doi:10.1210/jc.2011-3362

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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